Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Mencken on Government

Mencken on Government
Thomas Allen

    In 1926, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) wrote Notes on Democracy in which he expressed his views on democracy and related issues. He was a journalist, satirist, and critic and a libertarian and one of the leaders of the Old Right. In his book, he describes government, pages 126-128 and 130-131. Below is an overview of his discussion on government; my comments are in brackets.
    Mencken notes, “All government, whatever its form, is carried on chiefly by men whose first concern is for their offices, not for their obligations.” Government is essentially “a conspiracy of a small group against the masses of men, and especially against the masses of diligent and useful men. Its primary aim is to keep this group in jobs that are measurably more comfortable and exhilarating than the jobs its members could get in free competition.” To accomplish this goal, political leaders are “always willing to make certain sacrifices of integrity and self-respect in order to hold these jobs, and the fact is just as plain under a despot as it is under the mob.” [Mencken gives a good argument for term limitation and for limiting the number of years anyone can be employed by the government in the civil service, armed forces, and appointed positions.]
    As the “mob has its flatterers and bosh-mongers; the king has his courtiers.” However, the two have an important difference. “The courtier, at his worst, at least performs his genuflections before one who is theoretically his superior, and is surely not less than his equal. He does not have to abase himself before swine, with whom, ordinarily, he would disdain to have any traffic. He is not compelled to pretend that he is a worse man than he really is. He needn’t hold his nose in order to approach his benefactor. Thus he may go into office without having dealt his honour a fatal wound, and once he is in, he is under no pressure to sacrifice it further, and may nurse it back to health and vigour.” Moreover, "[h]is sovereign, at worst, has a certain respect for it, and hesitates to strain it unduly.” Furthermore, “[t]he courtier’s sovereign . . . is apt to be a man of honour himself.”
    On the other hand, “the mob has no sensitiveness [for honor] . . . and, indeed, no knowledge that it exists. . . . To the democrats of the world this attitude was puzzling, and on reflection it began to seem contemptible and offensive.” (“Once Frederick the Great was asked why he gave commissions in his army only to Junker. Because, he answered, they will not lie and they cannot be bought. That answer explains sufficiently the general democratic theory that the Junker are not only scoundrels but also half-wits.”)
    Mencken summaries the difference between feudalism and democracy. “[T]he  the essential objection to democracy is that, with few exceptions, it imposes degrading acts and attitudes upon the men responsible for the welfare and dignity of the state. The former was compelled to do homage to his suzerain, who was very apt to be a brute and an ignoramus. The latter are compelled to do homage to their constituents, who in overwhelming majority are certain to be both.”
    [Throughout his book, Mencken blames most of America’s problems on demagogues and the mob that they manipulate. Although he occasionally looks behind the demagogues, he seldom goes further than a glance. If he were to remove a few layers, he would find what he seems to consider the betters and superiors manipulating from behind the scene their puppets like Roosevelt, Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge — all of whom Mencken considers to be men of the mob. These betters or superiors are the plutocrats and intellectuals, people of high intelligence, most of whom would have been aristocrats, Catholic clergymen, and international merchants of the olden days. {Later in his book, he does go to the heart and identifies the real power behind the government.}]

Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.

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1 comment:

  1. Good to see someone writing about Mencken--few today even know of him at.

    Just found your site. Hope to visit often.